Roko Sherry Chayat, abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse and one of the first members of the WTB Council, invited each speaker to open with a verse, short prayer or reflection conveying concern and love for Mother Earth. She asked that everyone listen deeply and participate through “compassionate engagement.” After each reading, a moment of silence was observed for personal reflection.
Robin Kimmerer opened with a Mary Oliver poem, “Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me.” Catherine Landis recited “Prayer for the Great Valley,” by Gary Snyder. Peggy Thompson read a short prayer from Diane New, “To Welcome Spring Renewal.” Robin Tait shared two writings from the Bahá’í faith, each emphasizing our relationship with each other and the humility and kindness we should possess toward all of creation. Sherry read a few lines by Elizabeth Roberts, who suggested that each of us should enter into the deep silence from which all action springs.
Robin has two master’s degrees, one in conservation biology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY–ESF), the other in environmental studies from Antioch University in New England. She is interested in native plant preservation and issues of sustainability.
Robin opened with a quote from the Bahá’í Universal House of Justice: “The oneness of mankind which is at once the operating principle and ultimate goal of revelation (God’s revelation) implies the achievement of a dynamic coherence between the spiritual and practical requirements of life on earth.”
Caring for the earth must be both spiritual and practical. The technologies of today and the future must be formed by our values and spiritual principles. Robin offered some personal thoughts on this:
1. We are here to fall in love with God, with each other, and ultimately with all creation. All of humanity and creation are our family. The knowledge that my family lives downstream, downwind, or downhill from me, and that my waste could injure them, becomes an important awareness in my life. In the Bahá’í faith there are two books, the Book of Creation and the Book of Revelation. We need to be reminded of the Book of Creation.
2. We are here to educate. Caring for the earth requires both practical and spiritual education. We all need to acquire at least a basic understanding of how the world works, of food webs, of thermal dynamics. We also need to learn spiritual principles: respect, love, awe, humility, gratitude. Robin learned these principles through a lot of healing processes.
3. Our values shape our actions with our inner self, with others, and with the earth. Each of us has a capacity for anger and for hurting others that sometimes emerges from pain and isolation. We must learn compassion. The essence of sustainability is love, community and compassion.
4. Caring about the earth is about awe and oneness, about looking at plants and animals as our friends. You love what you know, and you protect what you love. Love is acquired through knowledge. We need also to educate our souls. Biology and creation must be about awe. One does not have to be religious to be awed by, for example, the flight of a hummingbird across the Gulf of Mexico. Our souls are quickened by beauty. We were given a capacity to love beauty.
Robin concluded that love moves the universe, and that ecological sustainability is about sustainable societies. The fundamental principle of unity is based on justice and on institutions in which people—all people—can participate in non-adversarial processes.
Margaret Susan (Peggy) Thompson, a WTB Council member, is professor of history at Syracuse University. She is also an associate member of the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan (IHM), an intrinsic part of whose mission statement is caring for the earth and understanding sustainability as a moral mandate.
Peggy reflected on a weekend spent with her “mission unit,” a small group of people that is a part of IHM. She and others were asked to bring to this gathering something that reminded them of, or symbolized for them, a wise woman or wisdom figure in their lives. Peggy brought a hazelnut that had been given to her at the funeral of a dear friend and “wise woman” in her life, Rita Mary Broadway. Rita, who died at age 84 in the year 2000, was a sister, a medieval theologian, a scholar, a professor of English, and a mystic in her own right. Much of Sister Rita’s work was based on a 14th-century English mystic known as Julian of Norwich (England). One of Sister Julian’s most famous works was “A Reflection on a Hazelnut.” At Rita’s funeral, a copy of this work was placed on a card, which, along with a hazelnut, was distributed to each person. It read:
In this little thing [the hazelnut] I saw three truths.
The first is that God made it.
The second is that God loves it.
The third is that God looks after it.
For Peggy, this quote reflects how the environment, creation, and her spirituality come together.
Spending time feeling good about creation and the environment is all well and good, but action is also required. The community with which Peggy is associated, IHM, does just that. In the year 2000, IHM, at its general assembly, made the following corporate commitment that was approved by affirmation:
Empowered by the growing realization that we are interconnected with the whole web of life and that escalating violence, increased global poverty, and the exploitation of the earth threaten all of creation, we renew our passion to live the liberating message of Jesus in the spirit of humility, simplicity and zeal. We choose to in-flesh this calling by working with others to build a culture of peace and to right relationships among ourselves, with the church and with the whole earth community.
IHM renovated its own physical plant in accordance with its stated values. Even though small in number, increasing in age (the average age of IHM sisters is 69), and possessing no personal wealth, they decided to renovate their whole property (about the size of the Pentagon) in ways that maintain ecological sustainability. The cost was $58 million, which they did not have. However, this is an order formed during the Depression—and they were up to the task. Their success is an example of what a small, committed group can do to benefit a larger community regarding ecological sustainability combined with spiritual values.
Buddhism – Catherine Landis
Catherine is pursuing a master’s degree in forest ecology at SUNY–ESF. She is working on a project to restore the natural waters of Onondaga Creek, which is the seat of her spiritual practice at the Zen Center of Syracuse.
Catherine said that as a student, what informed her ecological awareness was the land itself, learning directly from the land. She had the opportunity a while ago to work for the forest service in Utah, where she was stationed in a very remote setting of approximately 300,000 acres. Part of her job was to take a map, jump in a truck, and “check out things, find things,” like woodpeckers and Mexican spotted owls, and map their territory. Working alone, she learned how to listen and pay attention to nature and to undo bad habits, like crashing impatiently through the woods. During this time spent alone in nature, she also discovered much about bird calls and learned the language of birds. She became aware of a whole new world.
This experience taught her two very important lessons: (1) She was not in charge. She was completely at the mercy of the land. Extending beyond this experience to encompass the whole world, we come to realize, with global warming and other natural phenomena, that we are not in charge. She quoted former SUNY–ESF professor Paul Mannon, who said, “You can’t control tree diseases. The fungi are smarter than us.” (2) We are not alone. While in Utah she became aware of being in a community of sovereign beings. These beings were “people,” just not human people. To her, this was not a wilderness but a major metropolitan area.
Through this experience, a question arose in her mind: How can there be cultural relationships between humans and other species? Although her work on the Onondaga Creek Project has been a different experience, she recognizes that the Onondaga Creek area is still an ecosystem, similar in many ways to the remote Utah area. Both involve water cycling, energy flow, nutrient cycling; only with Onondaga Creek, these processes are dysfunctional due to changes made by humans.
Relating her Buddhist practice to her relationship with nature, Catherine explained that in Buddhism there is a strong sense of interdependence. Things do not exist by themselves. Buddhism reflects the ecological web and takes it into a further reality by saying that the pieces are all one. Buddhism also focuses on the individual experience. This awareness in Buddhist practice has enriched her ecological understanding. Things are constantly changing, with a flow that is compatible with the evolution of species.
Native American—Robin Kimmerer
Robin is a professor of environmental biology at SUNY–ESF and chair of the Traditional Knowledge Ecology Section of the Ecological Society of America. She is also on the advisory board of SEEDS (Strategies for Ecology/Education Diversity and Sustainability).
The holiness of Mother Nature is Robin’s church. Planting peas is an act of worship. The richness of the dirt, and of all that live in and on it, represent mutual sustainability. Peas do not plant themselves. They rely on other parts of creation, just as all of creation rely on each other.
Robin, a member of the Pottawatomie Nation, said that some Native American teachings are not universal to all the traditions. One teaching shared by all the 600 or so different Native American cultures in North America, however, is a mutual respect for the earth and a caring for it.
As a scientist, Robin is very much influenced by her Native American heritage. The gifts of nature are always a part of her awareness. The definition of a gift is something that comes to us whether we deserve it or not. When we live on this earth in not such a good way, we are less deserving of these gifts.
The earth is incredibly generous and knows no bounds. When thinking of the world as a gift, we should ask ourselves—A gift from whom? What is the source of this gift? To Robin they are gifts from themselves. They give their gifts directly.
In the Native American tradition, all beings are thought of as persons. Nonhuman persons have their own will, their own intentions, and their own history and story. We should always think of these beings as our teachers. As a scientist, Robin is aware of the teachers around her in nature. In the native way of thinking, humans are the younger brothers of creation. We know the least about how to live on this earth. Our job is to look to our elders of creation.
What is our response to a gift? Should we, or should we not, take care of it? If the gift comes from someone or something we love, the relationship between us changes. We become grateful and caring. We become bound to the giver. We want to return the gift. Thinking of our ecosystem as a gift opens up this culture of gratitude. It also opens up the door to giving back. The idea of gifts and responsibilities is at the core of mutually sustaining ourselves and the earth. Gifts and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin. If you are given a gift, it becomes your responsibility to use it. Robin refers to this as an original instruction from the Creator.
As Kathleen Dean Moore says, “In a world of gifts, how then shall we live?” As humans, one of our gifts is thanksgiving. We know how to be thankful, and it is our job to take care of each other. We should never stand in the way of another being exercising her, his, or its gift. We must be vigilant in finding our gifts and then using our gifts and dreams for the good of all creation.